Even though it is widely believed that Japan is one of the most male chauvinistic (anti-female rights) countries in the developed world, it is hard to get a Japanese person to admit to that fact. Why is that so?
We all know that Japan and the Japanese like to appear to keep the peace and abide by the rules. There certainly are plenty of laws and even international treaties protecting the rights of women, and most Japanese will tell you that females enjoy the same rights as males when it comes to work and all other economic activities, the right to an education, and of course they will let you know that Japan has universal suffrage (however, they will forget to tell you that this was actually forcibly pushed into Japan by General Macarthur in 1946).
Nevertheless, even though maybe not on the same scale as Muslim countries and other male dominated societies like Cuba, Japan is still a prominently male-dominated domain, where men generally enjoy more perks when it comes to every day living and working, whether it be salary wise, or just stature in the home and/or work place.
The mere fact that Japan is taking “affirmative action” (that word grates on my nerves) to give nominal rights to women – ladies only cars on trains etc – shows that the men of Japan are still in a safe haven where ladies are fighting an uphill battle. There are still many places and events that are off limits or taboo to women in Japan (there is a list of these here). One of the more interesting ones, is that women are barred (by law!) from entering tunnels that are under construction in Japan. This has a long superstitious history, but the reason behind this, is that because the “God of the Mountains” (山の神, known to be a woman, see picture at top of this article) would get jealous if other women were to enter tunnels, and allure her male construction workers away. To avoid her wrath, and the accidents that would incur in such circumstances (cave-ins etc), women are banned from entering into the mountain at all during construction periods. In this day and age of course, the reasoning itself can not be written into the legal code, but the law itself still remains in force and can be seen here 労基法６４条２項. Recently however, the government has faced calls from women engineering associations, and other womens rights groups to be revised, and is now apparently under review. Some reports mention that the no-women-in-tunnels clause is to be abolished as early as April 2007. Male dominated construction conglomerates on the other hand are up in arms against the proposed revision, and are lobbying for the immediate termination of any such change to the law.
On a topic closer to home, sexual harassment is another cultural part of Japan, that happens on a daily basis at most places of work in Japan. Here again, the CEO down to the low level managers will preach how they are stamping out all traces of it, but get them in private and it is soon evident that most of them still have a healthy level of pride fed by female belittling words and actions. It is usually they however, who will be first to have an affair with a younger lady at work, or flirt with the women in titty bars while they tell their wives that that are working back late. Sexual harassment is all done under the covers in Japan, and therefore never becomes an official issue, even though it is blatant to most people. For this reason, it is generally accepted as part of working in Japan.
The Japanese are sexist in the same way that they are racist. Caused by the homogeneous demography of Japan, it is subconscious nature for the Japanese to also be generally racially intolerant, in the same way that many men are blindly chauvinistic. In saying this however, I must mention that the Japanese way of chauvinism, and their inherent xenophobic sentiments are subtle, and just below the surface enough to be provocative, but not enough to attract condemnation from those around them, or society in general. Being sexist, and racially intolerant in an almost undetectable manner is part of Japanese nature, and is here to stay.
Parents with small children for example, would not see any wrong if their children blurted out, 「ママ、みてみて！外人だ！」(Mummy, look, there’s a foreigner!) or 「パパ、黒人だ！黒いね〜」(Daddy, there’s a black man, he’s so black isn’t he..), and almost certainly would not reprimand their kids for these types of racial slurs. Most Japanese would even regard these comments as taking an interest in other cultures, and would be proud of their ankle biters for being so “kokusaiteki” (international minded).
Depending on how it is said though, “Gaijin” can be swung off the tongue in quite a spiteful tone. Those gaijin who have lived in Japan for a long time, are usually immune to this, but are rudely awakened from time to time, when somebody who was thought to be a friend or colleague is lets his lips loose with the “G” word. For many foreigners in Japan, “Gaijin” in most circumstances means “You are an outsider and will never belong to Japanese society” (exclusion), “You are an outsider, ignorant of Japanese ways” (cultural ignorance), “You are different from us ! Hahaha !” (childish differentiation), and can be extremely offensive. If nothing else, it certainly will stop you looking at that person in the same light as you had done up until the day they called you a gaijin to your face in a crushing inappropriate way. In most cases though, it is only the Japanese feeling a complex toward foreigners, and they use the word gaijin as a defence mechanism. Sites like CEOEnglish.com (which now has been taken down, but we cached it here) are a clear example of the complex which Japanese people have when it comes to dealing with gaijins, take a look at the banner at the top of their site!.
Living in Japan brings a new dimension of methods to cover over dirty areas of human nature with a thin layer of superficial nicety, so that they are a little more socially acceptable, or just easier to ignore. How many other thoughts/words/actions can you come up with that are prevalent in Japan, but would never be acceptable in the Western world?